Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

code.jpegA bureaucrat that with whom we have had numerous debates suddenly visited my office today wanting to talk. Gohsuke had told him to read Lawrence Lessig's book, Code. The bureaucrat read the book over the holidays and wanted to see me right away to tell me about it. (Today is the first day of work after the Japanese holidays. He said he, "got it." He liked the book very much and finally realized the scale and the context of the issues we had been debating and now understood what we were talking about. This story has several lessons... Focusing on specifics before you share a framework is futile; a well written book by an important person (the bureaucrat insisted on confirming the social status of Lessig) can change everything; the "meta-discussion" is less threatening than specific issues with responsibilities and associated budgets. ;-) Anyway, thanks Larry!


We need anonymous (subject to limitations of sparse census data) stats on the diffusion of book-defined frameworks, by geosocial location.

Such stats could capture pre-book resistance density (# of debates / time) and the scope of post-book influence (order of magnitude of region, market, audience, budget).

Boundary stats are often non-invasive and easily recalled, e.g. the global highest and lowest status adopters.

Why low-status adopters? It's hard to retain a self-image of high status when you can't reject (or haven't yet heard of) that which the lower-status have recently adopted.

A culture which only seriously ponders ideas that eminate from those with XXXX level of "social status" is, well, an excellent recipe for eventual Revolution (the 1912 ilk).

Gimme good ol' reasoning over status any day -- and that's the recipe for Progress.


Books can greatly influence people sometimes precisely because it is not specific and it is about meta-discussion.

Good example is Karl Marx. He NEVER set foot in a factory, derived all his conclusions from books. Then wrote about the "meta solutions" for the social problems. The result was well predicted by Heinrich Heine to Marx in a letter; "The socialist future is only with dread and horror that I think of the time when those dark iconoclasts will come to power." (Heine and Marx were friends and exchanged letters)

Where did I acquire this knowledge? Well, a book, of course :-)

I love books, meta-ideas and frameworks. But the buraucrat will probably not take any necessary measures, unless he changes his belief that "idea by important person put in writing is the right one". Because younger non-buraucrat Japanese know what need to be done better than the buraucrats and central bank executives, and he needs to trust them.

Thanks for posting this Chika. I think this is an EXTREMELY important point. Japanese ALWAYS want authority. At first they ignored me because I was an outsider, now they want answers from me. I keep saying, "Think for yourself and question authority." They say, "how do we do that?" Bah! That's probably one of the most difficult things for many Japanese to understand. Most Japanese have listened to authority all of their lives and when suddenly pressed to question authority and think for themselves (or listen to the young), they are stuck in a "zen mondo"... ;-p

Hi Joi,
How about "bureaucrats export", the idea I came up with when I was a senior at college?

Basically, pick up several bureaucrats from each agency, and compile them into a package. Export them to developing nations by advertising as "Movers and Shakers of Japan's miracle :-)". Do this until the number of total buraucrats becomes about 1/3. Increase the salary of the rest by 3.

Why? First, there is a scientific evidence that people become fixated on imaginary(and harmful) belief that their work has much higher mission than it really does when they are severely underpaid. (This is backed by "Cognitive Dissonance" theory...) By decreasing the number by 2/3 they can be paid 3 times as much without impacting the fiscal budget.

Second, they may become truely creative in coping with the understaffedness, and come up with much more radical and effective measures such as outsourcing to outsiders, abandonning unnecessary controls, etc.

(By the way, I once took a class by Krugman when he was at Stanford, and he said he had been astonished when he visited MITI in Japan. He had imagined this to be monolithic high-tech building full of sharp looking elites. The reality was tired looking guys wearing slippers working in pretty nasty/messy offices. I was surprised to find MITI was that admired from outsiders.)

Oops, I may lose friends from MITI if I keep going like this....

We shouldn't judge too severely of the bureacrat's attempt to confirm Lessig's social status. Presumably he wanted to confirm that Lessig's ideas weren't from the fever swamps or the lunatic fringe. A foreigner wouldn't necessarily be able to tell this about any one American writer. This approach, using the social status of the writer as a measure of the intellectual status of his opinions, is clearly imperfect. The Trent Lott affair demonstrates that otherwise respectable people can express fringe opinions. But I can see why a busy bureaucrat who is not fluent in English (I assume this was the case) would avail himself of a crude short cut.